Ancient Wisdom for Our Troubled Times: Journey through Holy Week with the Holy Twins

THE HOLY TWINS—St. Benedict and St. Scholastica watch over the city of Prague in the Czech republic from high atop the Church of the Annunciation.

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EDITOR’s NOTE—At ReadTheSpirit magazine, since our founding in 2007, we have asked writers of various faiths to describe for us the experience of traveling through their holy seasons. This week, our longtime columnist and author Benjamin Pratt invites us on a journey through Christian Holy Week. (And, to our Orthodox friends in the eastern branches of Christianity: We know your calendar places Holy Week in the final days of April this year—and we hope these reflections this week are an inspiring preview for you.)

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By BENJAMIN PRATT
Contributing Columnist

Let’s start our journey into the Christian Holy Week by recalling the timely wisdom of the Holy Twins.

Benedict of Nursia, (c. 620 AD)—who built on the ancient wisdom of the Essenes, the Desert Fathers and Augustine—integrated monastic life into the lives of ordinary people by welcoming them to participate in the monastic disciplines of education, agriculture and liturgy. Regular ReadTheSpirit followers have seen numerous reminders of the timely relevance, today, of Benedict’s centuries-old rules, including this 2018 cover story with poet Judith Valente.

Lesser known in this country is Benedict’s twin sister. Saint Scholastica is the patron of Benedictine nuns, education and convulsive children, and is invoked against storms and rain. According to a long Christian tradition, she is identified also as the twin sister of Benedict and shows up in icons, statues and illuminated manuscripts around the world. To this day, for example, she and her brother look out across the historic city of Prague, where a resurgence of faith played a catalytic role in the downfall of Communism 30 years ago.

Benedict and his twin sister focused on the Way, the Path of Jesus. Through their teachings, Benedict and Scholastica encouraged the sensible redirecting of one’s ordinary life toward a Christ-centered life. Their goal was to help people expand their awareness of Christ’s presence in their everyday lives as they seek to follow the Christic journey.

What can the Holy Twins teach us today? Consider this: Benedict lived in a time when the positive values of culture and community seemed to be crumbling all around him. On the one hand, Benedict rejected the lavish excesses of wealthy Roman families. On the other hand, he recognized that European culture more broadly was disintegrating as the old Roman Empire had been repeatedly invaded and had slowly collapsed. His collected disciplines, or rule, became the foundation for many other religious communities and was credited with stabilizing and reviving European culture. In the 20th Century, popes elevated him to the status of Europe’s patron saint.

Benedict’s and Scholastica’s history and legacy are not unique. In fact, nearly all of history’s great religious movements—in Christianity and in other global religious traditions—arose to confront and address major social crises.

Perhaps we need a new monastic order for our chaotic era, today.

For a few moments, then, let us approach the Christian Holy Week as a spiritual tradition, evoking the disciplines of Benedict and Scholastica, day by day.

The Call of Jesus

“I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life,” says Jesus in the Gospel of John. The Way calls followers of Jesus into the Christic Journey that can transform our lives and the world.

Just a few months ago, Christians acknowledged that Christmas celebrates two birthdays—the historical birth of Jesus and our birth into the life and way of Jesus. Then, as the year turns, Holy Week now leads us into the most intense part of this journey with Jesus.

There are many Christian traditions around the world that mark Holy Week—community customs, songs, liturgies, family traditions, food and even different ways of counting the days on our calendars. Together, they represent a vast global journey that passes three timeless pillars in this journey:

  • Friday, the day Jesus was tacked to a tree, the day in which his spirit was broken.
  • Saturday, the long day of waiting, some say the day Jesus descended into hell.
  • Sunday, Easter morning, the day of the resurrection of Jesus, which made Jesus our Christ.

I invite you, then, to go deeper with me into these three days.

Ask yourself: Where are you on your own Christic journey? Do you feel yourself stuck in Friday, or are you, like so many, trapped in Saturday? Or, have you reached the triumphant spiritual “Yes!” of Sunday morning?

FRIDAY—When Our Dreams Collide with …

First, as we prepare for Friday, it is helpful to ask some of the questions we share: What are we yearning for? Dreaming for? Hoping for in our lives, our families, our communities and our world?

At some point in the midst of these hopes and dreams—every one of us has hit a Friday. For many, the current virus is a Friday. At some point, nearly all of us have been thrown up against a rock, or tacked to a tree, and our dreams have been devastated, our innocence violated. Those are the Fridays of our lives.

Ask yourself: When was my spirit broken? What broke it? Did that brokenness threaten or even destroy my faith in myself, in others or in God? For some of us, these questions take us way back. Perhaps our innocence was violated very early by an angry mother or a distant or absent father, by alcohol in the family, or by physical or emotional abuse.

This week, to go even deeper into this part of the journey, I invite you to read Lucille Sider’s deeply moving Holy Week story, titled: Forgiving My Father. Some of us, in reading Lucille’s story, will recall our own similar moments of brokenness.

Or perhaps that brokenness took a different form in your life. I will never forget a friend telling me that, when she was 7 years old, her beloved uncle—who had seemed to embody all the goodness in life—died of cancer. “Something in me wasn’t sure where God was, and whether I could believe in goodness any longer,” she recalled.

For some of us of a certain age, the brokenness was the horror of discovering that our senior trip was heading toward the jungles of Vietnam. And for others, it was when our marital dream died. Or we dreamed of who we were supposed to be in this world, but we never opened that door. Or we didn’t have the children that we thought we would have, or we had more children than we thought we would have, or a child of ours became mentally ill or a child died.

On these Fridays, the pain is excruciating, and it is very appropriate to be angry or in deep grief.

SATURDAY—the Temptation of Accidie

Fortunately, most of us don’t live our lives stuck in Friday. We move to Saturday. The temptation for many of us is that we can become Saturday’s child. Remember the nursery rhyme? Saturday’s child works hard for a living.

For Saturday is the janitorial day of life. It’s the errand day. It’s the “get-through-it” day. For some of us, it’s the day when grief and anger can combine into a flat, soft, cynical bitterness. It may even lead to a kind of spiritual deadness.

Stuck in this endless Saturday cycle? It’s the kind of life in which we don’t feel any spice, any vitality, any vigor. The Desert Fathers and Mothers called this “accidie”—one of the so-called seven deadly sins.

Why is accidie such a dangerous temptation? Because it can cascade into other sins. In our accidie, we may turn to lust, perhaps affairs. We may turn to gluttony. Or, avarice might send us into obsessive buying. We may be laboring so hard each day that everyone else thinks we are just fine—and yet we are aching to fill our empty hearts. We are trapped.

I have written about this powerful spiritual struggle many times over the years, including in my book about Ian Fleming and James Bond. In the Middle Ages, “accidie” was translated as “sloth” or “torpor.” But, this is a spiritual condition and is distinctly different from either physical exhaustion or depression. In accidie, we loose all energy for engaging the world. The needs, the goals and even the good and the evil around us do not matter enough to inspire any action.

Falling into accidie is not a sin in itself. The sins—the separations from a fuller life—arise when we fail to recognize that we are stuck in the Saturday of accidie and never search for ways to resist its clutches.

SUNDAY—A New and Right Spirit

We all yearn for Sunday morning, the day of a clean and restored heart.

Eternal life begins now!

This is a resurrection of our spirit within our daily life—a spirit filled with gratitude, joy and hope that we share in daily service of others. Yes, the Resurrection gives us hope of life beyond this life—but first it gives us hope of life within this journey, this Way! It is the day that even with your broken spirit you are able, perhaps with a limp in your soul, to sing a Doxology.

Doxology is one of the oldest forms of Christian praise. A modern rendering is:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise God, all creatures here below;
Praise God for all that love has done;
Creator, Christ and Spirit, One. 

Sunday is the day we can say humbly that life is good as it is given. I like to pray: Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, not a cynical spirit, not a bitter spirit. God will not reject a humble and repentant heart.

So let’s look together at the hope of Sunday morning. How do we get there? How do we prevent ourselves from staying Saturday’s child? I’m going to give you a spiritual solution because it is a spiritual problem.

Religion is for people who try to stay out of hell. Spirituality is for those of us who have already been there.

Sing a New Song

So what is the first spiritual answer? This is where the wisdom of Benedict’s disciplines really shines through in our Christic journey. The first spiritual corrective, the first spiritual discipline, is singing.

How long has it been since you’ve just burst forth in song? You don’t have to do it when somebody is near—but try it at some point. Yes, actually burst forth in song!

In the early 1600’s, Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran pastor in a small town in Germany.  An infectious disease spread throughout his community and more than half his congregation was lost. He conducted as many as 50 funerals a day. And in the midst of that loss, he wrote the hymn, “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices.” It is one of the most powerful faith statements ever uttered. Can you imagine in the midst of that loss singing that song?

So here’s an invitation. For the next 30 days, perhaps at your lunch hour, find a few private minutes and sing that hymn. Or, you may want to do what I have been doing in the morning for many years. I sing the Doxology.

Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, through singing.

The Work of Our Hands

And in addition to singing, Benedict knew that we need to labor with our hands.

We need manual labor. So much of the work we do in our times is intangible work. It is mental, emotional, relational work. An excellent way to combat our accidie is to get into some good, hard manual labor.  St. John of Damascus in the eighth century defined accidie as “a sorrowfulness so weighing down the mind that there is no good it likes to do. It has attached to it as its inseparable comrade a distress and a weariness of soul and a sluggishness in all good works which plunges the whole person into a lazy languor and works in him or her a constant, slow, lazy bitterness.” We all know that at times of idleness or unemployment, we are more liable to succumb to accidie. But often we need more than the intellectual or emotional drain of everyday work.

We need a work that involves our whole physical being.

Henri Nouwen, who spent seven months in the Genesee monastery in New York, labored lifting rocks and digging ditches and sorting pebbles out of raisins that went into raisin bread (thank you, Henry).  And he wrote this about the value of manual labor: “Manual work indeed unmasks my illusions. It shows me how I am constantly looking for interesting, exciting, distracting activities to keep my mind busy and away from the confrontation with my nakedness and powerlessness, my mortality and my weakness.  Dull work at least opens up my basic defenselessness and makes me vulnerable. I hope and pray that this vulnerability will not make me fearful or angry but instead open to the very gifts of God’s grace.”

For my wife Judith and me, gardening enriches our souls. I did a little planting already this week. For Gandhi it was weaving. And there are even the mundane chores of vacuuming, washing dishes by hand or carefully preparing traditional foods.

Want a great suggestion? A 12-bean Ecuadorian Holy Week soup called Fanesca is described, this week in Doug Yunker’s column, titled: A Reflection on the Wonders of Holy Week: The Jesus Cabinet of Curiosities and a traditional soup of many beans. Read some of the recipes for Franesca at the end of Doug’s column. Making that soup? It’s work!

Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, through manual labor.

Turning to Prayer

As we continue along this Christic Journey, many of us will discover that what kills accidie outright is prayer. A decade ago in this magazine, I shared this prayer that I have found helpful in wrestling with accidie. However, I do not want to mislead you. To meet the attack of accidie with prayer means more than just a quick appeal to drive away the black mood.

All of the steps I have described are part of a larger spiritual transformation. For if we really dedicate ourselves to this entire process, all kinds of things begin to happen. Right away we are beginning to rise from the dead, for whenever we honestly turn our thoughts to God, then new life begins to happen in us.  We shall be reminded again and again through prayer of the great and good purposes of the living God.

For many years I have been inviting couples especially to pray daily the prayer of St.  Francis. In marriage counseling, I focus especially on the middle portion of that prayer, “Lord help me to seek more to understand than to be understood, more to console than to be consoled, more to love than to be loved.” And some people have taken it very seriously. I’ve been absolutely amazed. One couple has prayed it together even when they are out of town. The husband sat in my office, with the tears running down his face, “Never in my whole life did I imagine I would be more interested in understanding my wife than in forcing her to understand me.”

Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, through prayer.

Hospitality, the Doorway to Community

And finally, the fourth spiritual discipline is to be in community, to remain hospitable—to be in a community that does not forget the least among us and seeks God in all things.

Shortly after Front Edge Publishing was founded in 2007, I became one of the publishing house’s first authors, attracted to this team’s founding principle: Good media builds healthy community. And, we say: A book is a community between two covers. Now, 14 years later, our collective community of writers and writings—including my own contributions to many books—circles the world. I have told stories, shared prayers and songs and poems, and invited readers into a larger spiritual community along with friends we have met in Europe, Africa, Asia and, of all places on the planet, New Zealand.

So, what is “community”? It is closely related to compassion, humility and hospitality.

One of my favorite examples happened just a few years ago in Seattle, Washington, at the Special Olympics. Nine children lined up on the starting line for the 100 yard dash, and the gun went off, and these children began to move with great relish! But, before they were even one-third of the way, one child tripped and fell, skinned his knee, bloodied his hand and begin to cry. By that time, all the other children were farther ahead of him, but one by one they began to stop and turn around. And one little girl with Down’s syndrome knelt down and kissed his forehead and said, “This will make it feel better.”  And each of the other children helped pull this child to his feet and all nine children, locked arm-in-arm, walked across the finish line together.

Thousands of people came to their feet and cheered—and cheered—and cheered.

Create in me a clean heart, 0 God, with singing, prayer, manual labor and with community.

And to all of our friends around the world, I wish you a glorious struggle and triumphant renewal in this Holy Week laid out before us—and I wish our Orthodox friends the same a month from now.

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Care to read more?

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Based near Washington D.C., the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt is a retired pastoral counselor with 40 years of experience working with men and women facing a wide range of stresses and tragedies. He is a Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and a retired member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. Before COVID struck, he travels widely to work with groups, conferences and other events. Even in the pandemic, he continues this work virtually. He has been a keynote speaker and is a veteran of designing workshops and weekend retreats, which he has conducted nationwide. He writes regularly for ReadTheSpirit online magazine and also is a featured columnist at the website for the popular Day1 radio network.

His book, A Guide for Caregivers, has helped thousands of families nationwide cope with the wide array of challenges involved as more than 50 million of us serve as unpaid caregivers in the U.S. alone. In 2021, Ben will continue to write about caregiving issues for us.

His book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass, explores some of the themes in this week’s Holy Week column, including an in-depth look at Accidie.

If you find these books helpful, and if you suggest that your small group discuss these books, we would love to hear from you about your response, ideas and questions. Or, if you are interested in ordering these books in quantity, please contact us at [email protected]

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Benjamin Pratt—’Want to talk with me, or only at me?’

EDITOR’S NOTE—Among Benjamin Pratt’s inspiring books is Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass, a spiritual exploration of the “7 deadlier sins” that best-selling author Ian Fleming set out to explore as he wrote his series of James Bond novels. That thought-provoking book, also known as A James Bond Bible Study—has sparked spirited small-group discussion around the world from New Zealand to New York City. In his column this week, Ben returns to teaching on the nature of sin as he grapples with the moral forces behind the rush to confirm a new Supreme Court justice.

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Care to read more about the context of “7 deadlier sins” as journalist and novelist Ian Fleming saw these moral challenges? In this book, author Benjamin Pratt invites readers to explore Fleming’s Bond novels and rediscover the moral threats that Fleming thought all of us will have to face in our world, today. CLICK ON this cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

By BENJAMIN PRATT
Contributing Columnist

As the culture wars intensify since the death of RBG, numerous columnists, citizens and politicians have decried the hypocrisy of those rushing to fill her seat prior to the election. Hypocrisy is certainly a common evil but not an accurate description of the behavior we are seeing right ow.

In a war, it is best to accurately know the enemy, the one without and the one within ourselves. What is the proper way to describe the moral challenge we face? What is the name of this sin?

“For neither man nor angel can discern hypocrisy, the only evil that walks invisible, except to God alone,” declares John Milton in Paradise Lost.

The Greek root of hypocrisy, hupokrinein, a word sometimes translated as “pretending” or “theatrical,” refers to acting a part in a play. Hypocrisy is basic to our human condition. We all maintain the veneer of respectability, but none of us can be perfectly congruent in thought and action, so we are by definition hypocrites.

Like diamonds, hypocrisy is forever.

But that is not the name of the evil culprit with which we are grappling now. No, we are wrestling here with something else—with political fundamentalism or self-righteousness. Identifying this is crucial to the public debate.

Self-righteousness is the fuel of our cultural wars. When this particular tenet of our self is paramount, there is little or no room for tolerance. It becomes our orthodoxy to live and die by this vision. It becomes paramount over abiding in an integrated community, E Pluribus Unum. Armed with our convictions, the faithful are certain about the behavior of others and equally certain about the heresy of the infidels who are not part of their fold. The righteous are armed with the knowledge that God has shown them the right way, and all other ways are false.

Hypocrisy is the natural cover for such an arrogant soul. Hypocritical self-righteousness is about perceived height. Those who envision themselves towering above the common herd of humankind are responsible only to the vision behind their own eyeballs. The bitter irony is that these twin towers of duplicity—hypocrisy and self-righteousness—place the evil person beyond the possibility of reconciliation, redemption and community. The loss of community as our highest vision means the loss of E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one (the motto of the US).

Understanding the true danger of self-righteousness is crucial, because we tend to regard this problem as a rather benign blemish on the backside of the overly religious. From Dickens and Twain to Hollywood, self-righteousness is standard fare in American comedy. We tend to chuckle about it and forget it, but the truth is: Self-righteousness is a potentially deadly evil, the malevolent force behind war as well as more common forms of pain that we visit on each other for a whole array of political, cultural and religious violations.

The blood of the innocent flowed in more than one corner of the world on August 19, 2003. In Iraq, a truck loaded with explosives reached the corner of the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad. The crime claimed the lives of Iraqis and foreigners, including one of the most talented United Nations diplomats of his generation, Sergio Vieira de Mello. On the same day a bus bomb in Jerusalem killed at least 18 people and injured scores more, including many children on their way home from the Western Wall. Both despicable acts were committed by self-righteous terrorists whose goal was to disrupt peace, plant fear, take vengeance and thwart the hopes of the majorities of Palestinians, Israelis and Iraqis who do not share the terrorist vision of the world. Imagining their vision superior to that of the majority, and buoyed by their vision of a vengeful god, they deny and disrupt attempts at building peaceful communities.

This has erupted close to home. In 1994, Paul Hill fired a shotgun into a pickup truck outside the Ladies Clinic in Pensacola, Florida, killing physician John Britton and his security escort James Barrett, plus wounding Barrett’s wife. A Presbyterian minister, Hill claimed the killings were “justifiable homicide” to protect unborn children. He remained defiant until his execution in September, 2003, self-righteously saying he felt no remorse for the slayings and was certain of his reward in heaven.

Terrorism is spiritually rooted in self-righteousness. Behind the eyes of the terrorist is a vision of the world that tolerates no other vision—to the point that all other perceptions of the world must be obliterated at any cost. Terrorists think in absolutes. They are purists.

Here’s a simple test for signs of self-righteousness in a person you’re encountering: Does this person want to talk with me, or only at me?

When individuals or groups fix the boundaries of political, cultural or religious tenets, especially ones that exclude people, the seeds of self-righteousness are sown. As we close the doors of dialogue, we are declaring: “We know precisely who God is and what Good is, and therefore, we know who the Devil is and what Evil is.”

We claim to vanquish doubt without realizing that doubt is an essential ingredient of faith. If you doubt this, simply read the journals of countless saints right down to modern heroes like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa.

In the writings of Ian Fleming and others who have explored the deadly sins down through the ceturies—self-righteousness is the loftiest head of the evil dragon.

From a position of imagined superior height this swelled head lives, isolated with his or her own almighty, vengeful god, casting scorn and contempt on all the lesser beings for whom there is only negative judgment, and with whom there is no community.

Unless we conquer this war within, there will be no E Pluribus Unum!

Fields of Dreams: In October, our ‘American Odyssey’ calls us home

Ed and Jean Pratt grave Laurel Hill Cemetery, Erie County, Pennsylvania Photo by Debra DeSantis

The Pratt family gravesite at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Erie County, Pennsylvania. Photo by Debra DeSantis.

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By BENJAMIN PRATT
Author and Contributing Columnist

Baseball—
The crack of the bat,
The sweep of the curve,
The slide into second base.

My dad loved the game—maybe more than he loved Mom.

As millions of Americans step into October, each year, the liturgical season of baseball either brings elation or somber reflection on what might happen next year.

Yes, there’s always next year, isn’t there?

Filmmaker Ken Burns understood this kind of timeless spiritual yearning, calling baseball the “American Odyssey.” In his 18-hour documentary, Baseball, narrator John Chancellor tells us: “It is an American Odyssey that links sons and daughters to fathers and grandfathers, and it reflects a host of age-old American tensions, between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game in which every player is measured against the ghosts of all who have gone before. Most of all it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope—and coming home.”

If we are true fans of the game, those words give us a little shiver, don’t they?

What that soaring description misses is that each American’s odyssey is as much a solitary pilgrimage as it is collective. Surely, you have your own.

And, this is mine. The memories and dreams all flowed back recently as I walked across my father’s final field.

My wife Judith and I had not visited my parents’ gravesite in a decade. Like Odysseus, we came back armed—packing grass clippers, fearing that we might need to catch up on 10 years of grave tending.

At journey’s end, we rolled our car to a stop along the lane through Laurel Hill Cemetery, Erie County, Pennsylvania. Got out. Stretched our legs.

Strolled across the lush green.

Sure enough, the grass had crept right over the evidence of his name and lifespan—Mom’s too, etched beside him in stone. I couldn’t help but think of Carl Sandburg: “I am the grass. I cover all.”

In that granite, now partially obscured, all that is left of these two people for the world to see is a few words and dates—the simplest of signs that, somewhere below that verdant expanse, lies:

PRATT
THOMAS EDWIN, 1908-1985
GENEVIEVE OPAL, 1917-1980

Time has obscured so much. Yes, those are facts. But those weren’t their names. They were Ed and Jean to friends.

To us: Dad and Mom.

In Ken Burns’ potent phrase—”between workers and owners”—Mom and Dad lived their lives on the “workers” half of that balance. They labored so hard, and yet remained so poor, that I only made it into college because of a scholarship.

In fact, they were so poor that, despite my failing eyesight in high school, we had no money for me to afford an eye exam and glasses. There went my own baseball career! I will never forget a ball nearly taking my head off in one big game—a ball I never saw coming.

We were so poor that, for years, some of us slept in an unheated attic in a tiny house we shared with other family.

So poor, I told Judith, “I don’t think Dad could have ever afforded a ticket to a world series game when his beloved Pirates were playing.”

She shook her head. “Never heard any mention of a world series game.”

“During the regular season, I know he made it to the old Forbes Field more than once,” I said. “Remember that old story he loved to tell about going with his buddies, one time, and downing so many hot dogs that—”

“Of course!” Judith said. She has heard these tales far too many times, already, but she was game once more on this special occasion. “Fourteen hotdogs, wasn’t it? I think that’s how the story went.”

“Maybe 14 hotdogs,” I said, “but I think, by the time he told it the last time, it was 16 or more. Who knows?”

We looked at each other and smiled. The truth is: All too soon, given our own stage in life, there won’t be anyone left to keep telling that story.

The work at hand refocused our resolve. We stooped to trim the grave.

“One thing’s sure,” I said at length. “He loved baseball more than anything or anyone in life.”

Judith looked it me. That was quite a statement. She had heard me say that many times before, but it remains a startling truth. Dad loved the game—maybe more than he loved Mom.

“It’s just a fact,” I said.

As a young man in the Great Depression, Dad did whatever he could to survive. He hustled pool in the winter—and pitched semi-pro ball in the spring, summer and fall.

“His greatest dream was that I’d grow up to be a major league ball player,” I said. “Too bad we didn’t have the money to figure out why I was losing my eyesight.”

Judith, always the reality check, said, “Oh, and you think glasses was the only reason you didn’t turn into Willie Stargell or Barry Bonds?”

Yeah, right.

I chuckled. “But, that’s not the kind of baseball I’m thinking about right now,” I said. “I’m talking about the baseball in his blood.”

Dad grew up playing rough and eventually made it onto a semi-pro team sponsored by a gas company. He loved to tell about a game in the 1930s in a country field just over the Pennsylvania line in rural West Virginia—so poorly suited to the sport that a dirt road ran right through the diamond.

“No kidding,” Dad would say, “I’m talking right smack through the pitcher’s mound and home plate! If we heard a car coming, we had to pause the game. And that wasn’t the worst of it. The left fielder could not even see the right fielder, because there was a hill between them!”

He lived for baseball.

He paid the bills as an auto mechanic, which meant his fingernails always were tinged with black grease, no matter how hard he scrubbed. I can still see that left hand with the black-rimmed nails pressing a transistor radio to his ear, so that he could hear his Pirates play. When we moved from southwestern Pennsylvania up to Erie—blocks from the lake—he used to hole up in the attic to listen.

“So, I won’t disturb anyone,” he would say.

The truth was: He didn’t want anyone interrupting the best part of his week—those exciting adventures at the ball park brought to life by the creative narration of the Pirates’ Rosey Rowswell.

An extra-base hit wasn’t just a stat to Rosey. It was “a doozie maroonie!” Oh, he had a million of ’em.

And the best? When a Pirate slugged a home run, Rosey’s voice would soar as if yelling over his shoulder: “Raise the window, Aunt Minnie! Here it comes! Right into your petunia patch!” Then, we all heard it—the glass shattering! “Awww, that’s too bad,” Rosey would say. “Aunt Minnie never made it in time.”

I suppose there’s a prayer in that vibrant life of eternal hope, as Dad curled up in the sweltering attic on a hot summer’s afternoon with that little radio piping Rosey’s voice directly into his ear.

I mean: God, Dad loved baseball.

Baseball was his odyssey and, for a time, our shared journey. The hard truth about all such pilgrimages, though, is that they span time and expose all manner of human frailty. Dad’s body stooped more each year—the weight of his own life and limitations. He was bent even further by the burden of Mom’s debilitating illness—rheumatoid arthritis—that took the ferocious form of insufferable pain. Dad was helpless in the face of it—no way he could make her feel better. Every day, her body was wracked with pain, the joints distorted so much her hands would not close.

Somewhere in that saga, a particular line of that family story was draped around my shoulders: Mom became an invalid because I was born. That became part of our family odyssey—and I had to live with that onus for many years.

All in all: A curse from Hell played out in our tiny home. Eventually, Mom died too young. Just 63.

When we first laid that shared cemetery marker for them, more than three decades ago, the granite slab stood just above the blades of grass, formally proclaiming the family name even from a distance: PRATT.

Now, as Judith and I paid our respects, we could see Sandburg’s sod swallowing what we had tried to establish there.

I was about to say something about that to Judith—when another vivid memory stopped me cold.

It was Dad, standing right there in that field just after Mom’s death. We had just buried her and Dad raised his hand toward the distance—pointing over toward a line of far bigger stones in the distance. My eye followed his fingertip.

“This cemetery has two sides,” he said, “that one over there with the big monuments—and our side where everyone is equal.”

I can still hear his matter-of-fact intonation of that phrase: “Our side where everyone is equal.”

It wasn’t a boast. It wasn’t a political statement. It was fact. Just a fact about his place in this world.

And, somewhere in those words, I think there might have been another prayer.

God, in the end, we are all equal.

I stood beside Judith, as we stared at their granite marker all these decades later.

I gazed up along the cemetery’s gentle, sloping hillside with a lane running through it.

This could be that West Virginia ballpark with that lane right through the pitcher’s mound all the way to home plate.

For a moment, I closed my eyes. Someday—

Someday, before the grave marker is completely swallowed by the sod, perhaps my father will rise.

He might use the marker as the rubber on his pitching mound to hurl a few fastballs again.

He just might pitch a no hitter! Why not? Our dream once was to be baseball stars. Make it a no hitter!

We both set out on that journey with high hopes—and only discovered life’s many truths along the way.

Dad did make it to Forbes Field a few times, at least, as a spectator. But, no, I don’t think he ever could have afforded a ticket to a World Series game—and there were precious few, of course, in the span of his life. He was only a baby in 1909 when the Pirates won their first World Series. Then, throughout the rest of his life, there were only five more trips to the Series: ’25, ’27, ’60, ’71 and ’79.

Yet, every autumn—whatever had unfolded since March—October was a special season all its own, defined by hope. If not for this year, then for another.

Yes, there definitely is a prayer somewhere in that odyssey. One day—

One day—we might stand together in a field of our dreams, once again.

And tell the stories that define our lives.

At the end of our journey to Dad’s final field, Judith and I packed up our clippers and returned to our car.

We buckled up, started the car. All too soon, reality set in again. You can’t avoid the truth. All too soon, who will be left to tell these stories we love so much?

Well, in this moment, I’ve given this story to you. Even in this instant, it’s a part of your own odyssey.

Ben and Ed Pratt during Little League season.

Dad as my Little League coach. He is in the upper right and I’m sitting second from his right.

As the voice of Doctor No echoes from Las Vegas, can we collectively respond with love?

Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting site, Las Vegas Strip, Nevada. The shooter’s hotel is at left. The festival site is at right behind the two gray towers.

By BENJAMIN PRATT
and JAMES TRUXELL
for ReadTheSpirit magazine

Stephen Paddock in a widely shared photo from social media.

How can we respond to the horrific shooting in Las Vegas, when the gunman’s dark motives remain such a mystery? There was no war cry from Stephen Paddock. No manifesto awaiting publication. No suicide video. No affiliation with an infamous group.

The shooter’s description by his younger brother gives us one clue. Eric Paddock describes his brother, Stephen, as a “no-ties, no-attached kind of guy, a no-help-from-someone-else kind of guy, a standalone guy.” Eric says that Stephen committed the Las Vegas atrocity “100 percent by himself.” Stephen had  “no church, no political affiliations.”

Every day since the rampage, newspaper headlines have tried to plumb the depths of this mystery. We want to know the killer’s motivation. What spawned his maniacal action? Not being able to wrap our minds around Paddock’s evil motivation leaves us feeling vulnerable. The Washington Post wrapped up its reporting this past weekend with this headline: Las Vegas gunman left behind trail of carnage and clues but no ‘clear motive or reason why.’

The New York Times team came to the same vague conclusion: “The mystery of who he was has only seemed to deepen.”

Perhaps that’s true. But some passages in the Times story remind us of an earlier, infamous character from popular culture. First, consider these excerpts from the Times team about Stephen Paddock:

  • “From an early age, he focused on gaining complete control over his life and not having to rely on anyone. He cycled through a series of jobs he thought would make him rich.” And, eventually, he did become wealthy through investments in real estate.
  • “Some who met him described him as arrogant, with a strong sense of superiority. People in his life bent to his will, even his mother and brother. He went out of his way for no one.”
  • “Mr. Paddock cherished his solitude. … In 2003, he got his pilot’s license, eventually taking the extra step to get an instrument rating so that he could legally fly in cloudy conditions with limited visibility. … The message was clear: Mr. Paddock was a man who did not want to be seen.”
  • “His methodical and systematic mind had turned in a lethal and unpredictable new direction.”

WE’VE MET THIS KIND BEFORE

Doctor No in the movie version of Ian Fleming’s novel.

Nearly 60 years ago, Doctor No stepped onto the world stage as one of author Ian Fleming’s most notable villains in the James Bond series of novels that later were turned into blockbuster movies. There are striking resemblances between Stephen Paddock and Doctor No. Like Fleming’s evil genius—who chose the name “No” as a rebuke to life itself—Paddock ultimately responded to life with a deafening: No!

Stephen Paddock clearly was a Doctor No kind of guy. In spite of being a gambling man, Paddock didn’t want to live with the vulnerable gamble of being a full, connected human being. Like Doctor No, Paddock chose to live with the illusion of power, the illusion of invulnerability.

Evil is a mystery. As with any real mystery, the more we know, the deeper grows the mystery. Doctor No personified the evil of supreme indifference and mania for power. Nearly every enemy of James Bond, at some point, captured Bond and made a personal confession to him. Doctor No’s is the longest confession of any of the evil legion in Fleming’s series of novels.

Here are just a few of the lines from this evil figure, described by Fleming as having a face with “no anger in it … nothing but a supreme indifference.”

  • In the novel, Doctor No argues, “All the greatest men are maniacs. They are possessed by mania which drives them forward towards their goal. The great scientists, the artists, the philosophers, the religious leaders—all maniacs. … I am as you correctly say, a maniac—a maniac, Mister Bond, with a mania for power.”
  • Doctor No also says, “Power is sovereignty.”
  • And he explains, “I changed my name to Julius No—the Julius after my father and the No for my rejection of him and of all authority.”
  • Doctor No concludes, “I had to learn what my tools were before I put them to use on my next goal—total security from physical weaknesses, from material dangers and from the hazards of living. Then, Mister Bond, from that secure base, armored even against the casual slings and arrows of the world, I would proceed to the achievement of power—the power, Mister Bond, to do unto others what had been done unto me, the power of life and death, the power to decide, to judge, the power of absolute independence from outside authority.”

A TIMELESS SPIRITUAL CONFRONTATION

In the novel, James Bond rebuts Dr. No’s claim that his wealth and weaponry and indifference to killing make him a powerful man. Bond says, “That is only the illusion of power, Doctor No. Any man with a loaded revolver has the power of life and death over his neighbor. Other people beside you have murdered in secret and got away with it. In the end they generally get their deserts. A greater power than they possess is exerted upon them by the community.”

Ahh! Therein lies the spiritual truth that, as we write this reflection, we hope you may share with others: Yes, this kind of evil is a mystery! Yes, this kind of deadly destructive power is unfathomable! Yet, there is another powerful mystery that can stir among us: Love. Compassion. Community.

As you watched the news reports from Las Vegas, weren’t you equally mystified by the courage and sacrifice of people who responded in the face of such carnage and peril? Some people responded by risking their own lives to shield the bodies of both loved ones—and complete strangers. Astonishing courage! Others picked up bleeding bodies and ran toward hoped-for help, exposing and risking their own lives as they darted among the bullets. First responders moved toward danger, not away from it. Such love and self-less compassion are mysteries!

In Ben Pratt’s book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass, Pratt writes extensively about Doctor No’s denial of life itself—his supreme indifference. Pratt says that a core struggle in defeating such evil lies in overcoming the sin that traditional Christianity calls “accidie.” At one point in the book, Pratt writes:

“With a loss of faith in God, we make ourselves our own god and claim our own power. Therefore, accidie is the root of cruelty, malice, snobbery, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and avarice. When a person confronts accidie, he or she faces a pivotal spiritual crossroads where the choice reflects moral courage—or moral cowardice.”

In Las Vegas, we witnessed the horrific impact of utter moral indifference from the inscrutable mind and heart of Stephen Paddock. And we witnessed the heights of moral courage. Both astonishing. Both, at their heart: spiritual mysteries.

The question now is: Can we respond in some meaningful way?

A SPIRITUAL INVENTORY

In the face of such great mysteries, we encourage people to respond with spiritual disciplines to restore spiritual vitality. Among the most helpful we have found over many years of teaching and counseling, are: singing, praying, manual labor, maintenance of community, grieving, gratitude and, let’s not forget—joy.

Countless Americans are stunned, this week, in the face of the explosion from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. We seem unable to act. What can we do from this distance? How can we respond in the face of such mystery?

The questions we would begin to raise, this week, are part of a spiritual inventory we recommend for individuals and small-group discussion to confront feelings of powerlessness in the face of evil. One critical antidote to this accidie—this torpor that leaves us unable to take action—is to restore joy in our lives. In such an inventory, we ask questions such as these:

  • How long has it been since you sang with great joy?
  • If you once were joyous—and are no longer so—what squelched or crushed the joy in your soul?
  • What feeling replaced your passion and vitality?

The only healthy way to cope with our vulnerability at moments like this is to lean into the healthy, life-giving mysteries of human life with humility and gratitude. Doing so will make us more loving and point us toward courage and service.

So let’s face these mysteries of human life. Yes, we are incredibly vulnerable. Right now, we have the twin capacities to be malignantly isolated—or to be courageously connected, loving and ultimately joyous about life.

The shootings in Las Vegas pose a deep spiritual challenge for all of us.

So, let’s use the frightening reality of our vulnerability to our advantage! Together, let’s lift up songs of great joy and love. Let’s celebrate and draw around us a compassionate community. And, while we do so, let’s make sure to welcome all the other vulnerable pilgrims we find along the way.

Care to read more?

One easy step is to explore the writings of Benjamin Pratt in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.

Losses: Aging isn’t easy! Where do you find delight?

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
Emily Dickinson

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Benjamin Pratt little red truckBy BENJAMIN PRATT

I lost my truck the other day.

That’s the little red truck I’d had for 13 years for hauling wood, lumber, mulch, compost, rugs, neighbors’ old furniture, dirt—yes, just plain ol’ dirt.

That little red truck was part of me—my outdoorsy, garden-growing, firewood-collecting, mulch-spreading me. It was a part of me so basic that I ache with a sense of loss.

Ok, I didn’t really lose it; I sold it, but to me it was another loss. We don’t need two vehicles now and especially not a truck. No gardens, no fire places, no wood shop any more.

I’ve also lost my wheelbarrow, which had been my constant outdoor companion for 35 years. I’ve lost all those things. Some people will tell you I’m a bit crazy letting this stuff get to me. It’s like losing my favorite ol’ shirt or hat that’s weathered life with me—that gave me a good sense of my identity and vitality. Like an ol’ shirt or hat, that little red truck carried smells, aromas, memories of life’s little joys.

This aging thing is not easy. Every time I turn around, time—with a little help from friends—grabs something else. Something precious—at least something precious to me. Stability of walking. Strength. House. Vision. Hearing. Even the grocery store on the corner is gone!

One very deep sense of loss is the feeling that our country, one which I had hoped and believed we were improving, feels like it has taken major steps backward. There is a new wave of disrespect, of objectifying persons by race, class, sexual orientation or religion. I was never so naive as to believe we had dispelled racism, but it has raised its ugly head again and is looking all of us in the eye. I marched for civil rights in the ’60s. I was the founding pastor of a church that was 25% integrated when I left it in the hands if two pastors. It gives me hope that it is now even more integrated with skin color of every hue.

Everyday, I continue to resist losing the things I cannot do without—gratitude, hope, a sense of purpose—those simple things that give me a reason to get up in the morning and for which I give thanks at the end of the day.

One simple act that gives me hope is learning the name of any clerk who serves me in a store. I address the person by name and offer a smile and greeting. I have experienced remarkable appreciation as a result of this simple gesture. My guess is that often these men and women feel unnoticed and unappreciated. It doesn’t take much to change that.

I can even delight and smile broadly when I pray: Dear God, when I get to heaven, I hope I will find my ol’ shirt and hat hanging on the fence post and I can slip behind the wheel of my little red truck and haul compost and mulch and spread it around the gardens from my ol’ wheelbarrow!

In these troubling times, what are you losing? Or giving up?

And, even more importantly, where do you find delight? What sparks your hopes?

I invite you to share this column with friends to spark discussion. Yes, it’s fine to print out this column for your class or small group.

 

Care to read more?

DEADLY SINS—In 2017, Benjamin Pratt also is publishing an occasional series on the so-called Deadly Sins. Here is his first reflection on Greed, published earlier this year.

Cover of Benjamin Pratt Ian Fleming Seven Deadlier Sins bookAND, GET THE BOOK—Benjamin Pratt is the author of a book-length exploration of Ian Fleming’s life-long fascination with the challenge of “deadly sins.” In fact, Fleming believed that the traditional deadly sins should be updated with sins of the contemporary world—a theme he explored in his Bond novels. Learn more by getting a copy of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass.

Enough! Remembering that Greed Is a Deadly Sin

Goldfinger movie still

Gert Fröbe as Auric Goldfinger in the 1964 James Bond classic.

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Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
from the New Testament book of James, Chapter 5

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GREED is not a Christian virtue.

For centuries, in fact, Christians have condemned avarice as a deadly sin.

In this new year when the idea of amassing personal wealth is often conflated with God’s blessings, theologians like Stanley Hauerwas are stepping forward to remind Christians of this truth as he did recently in the Washington Post. This week, ReadTheSpirit is taking a different tack. We—our writers and editors—are storytellers and we try to bring you, each week, the best news about books and films that uplift the spirit. So, we have asked popular columnist Benjamin Pratt to share with us some stories—some parables. After a lifetime as a pastoral counselor, Ben has written books on caregiving, on confronting life’s daily challenges and on the importance of understanding the deadly sins and corresponding virtues.

Today, he offers parables you may want to share with friends on greed and charity.

And, by the way, charity is, indeed, a Christian virtue.

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‘ENOUGH!’

By BENJAMIN PRATT

The parable was the main teaching tool of Jesus. A parable is a mirror into which each person is able to see a representation and measure of our soul’s journey in God’s world.

The parable was also the main tool used by best-selling novelist Ian Fleming, the creator of the super-agent James Bond 007. Fleming publicly described his novels about 007 as “parables about evil people.” Bond’s mission was not to be a spy but to “go after the threat behind the spies, the threat that made them spy,” Fleming wrote. Bond’s mission as 007 was to slay the dragons of evil. So, in this reflection, I’ve also reached for passages from Fleming’s Goldfinger.

You’ll find some other literary references here and a couple of real-life saints, as well. Consider this column an invitation to become a pilgrim and progress through these encounters.

As you do, please think about your own responses to this temptation. We can offer antidotes to avarice even in the way we talk about greed, and the need for charity, in conversations with friends. For example, if we wrestle with our own temptations toward greed, one sign that we are winning the battle may be an honest exclamation: “Enough!”

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PARABLE OF ‘ENOUGH!’

George C. Scott at Scrooge movie still

George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge

“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure.”

“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

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PARABLE OF ‘ENOUGH!’

But Esau said, ‘I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.’
Genesis 33:9

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PARABLE OF ‘ENOUGH!’

The James Bond prize for Greed goes to Auric Goldfinger. Super-agent 007 is also referred to as “St. George” in all the Bond tales. This signals his primary mission—to slay the dragons that corrupt our lives.

The dragons Bond faces are all personifications of the evils that plague each of us. Auric Goldfinger is greed personified. As I describe in my book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass, the Bond novels were intended by Fleming as parables about what he felt were the modern world’s deadliest sins. Here are a few passages from Goldfinger, Fleming’s parable about evil—the evil of greed.

Gert Frobe plays Auric Goldfinger in "Goldfinger"

Do these passages remind you of a titan of wealth in our time?

“Goldfinger. Auric. That means golden, doesn’t it? He certainly is that. Got flaming red hair … It was as if Goldfinger had been put together with bits of other people’s bodies. Nothing seemed to belong. Perhaps, Bond thought, it was to conceal his ugliness that Goldfinger made such a fetish of sunburn. Without the red brown camouflage the pale body would be grotesque…There was a powerhouse of vitality humming in the man that suggested that if one stuck an electric bulb into Goldfinger’s mouth it would light up.”

Jill Masterton, Goldfinger’s accomplice in card sharking, answers the big question: “Why does he do it?” (cheat to win at cards or golf) “I can’t understand him. It’s sort of a mania with him, making money. He can’t leave it alone. I’ve asked him why and all he says is that one’s a fool not to make money when the odds are right. He’s always going on about the same thing, getting the odds right…and when the odds aren’t right, make them right.”

”He was the kind of man who thought he could flatten the world with his money, bludgeoning aside annoyances and opposition with his heavy wad.”

Goldfinger has a woman once a month. “He hypnotizes them. Then he—he paints them gold … he’s sort of possessing gold. You know—marrying it.”

Goldfinger said, “I am very successful and immensely rich, and riches … may not make you friends but they greatly increase the class and variety of your enemies … I am a poet in deeds—not often in words.”

Goldfinger confesses his driving motivation. “Mr. Bond, all my life I have been in love. I have been in love with gold. But above all, I love the true power gold alone gives to its owner—the magic of controlling energy, exacting labour, fulfilling one’s every wish and whim and, when need be, purchasing bodies, minds and even souls…I shall be the richest man in the world, the richest man in history!”

The end comes with Bond and Goldfinger attempting to choke the other to death. It is a vicious battle with Bond finally prevailing against greed. Our battle with greed is always a vicious life long struggle between our desire to have more and claiming we have enough.

“I have enough,” James Bond responded to a million-pound bribe.

 

PARABLE OF ‘ENOUGH!’

Have you seen the haunting contemporary painting of Greed by Mario Donizetti? The late Phyllis Tickle pointed to this painting as a disturbing and thought-provoking starting point in our spiritual struggle with this deadly sin. This week, we also are providing readers with that image and a short meditation you could share with friends.

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GENEROSITY, aka CHARITY

PARABLE OF CHARITY

Chuck Feeney

Chuck Feeney

Forbes Magazine called him the “James Bond of philanthropy” because he had given away $8 billion in almost complete secrecy. Not one major American philanthropist has given away a greater portion of his wealth. Chuck Feeney’s philosophy met his aspiration to empty his pockets by “giving while living”. He also said, wryly, “When giving while dead, you don’t feel anything.” This New Jersey born, Irish heritage business mogul co-founded Duty Free Shops around the world. He made other wise investments and amassed billions. He funded the peace process in Northern Ireland along with giving billions for higher education, public health, human rights and scientific research. His name is not chiseled in marble nor flashing from gilded letters on the thousand buildings on five continents that were built with $2.7 billion of his funds.

Mr. Feeney, now 85, has nearly completed his life’s aspiration of giving the bulk of his money to worthy causes. He encapsulated his frugality and generosity into his life style by traveling in coach and carrying reading materials in a plastic bag. He said, “You can only wear one pair of pants at a time.”

In June, 2014, Feeney sat among numerous billionaires and received Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Philanthropy. Warren Buffett presented the award by saying, “Chuck has set the example. It’s a real honor to talk about a fellow who is my hero and Bill Gates’s hero.” After other appropriate comments of praise, Warren Buffet turned to his old friend and mentor, Feeney, and declared that he has made a terrible mistake by spending money unnecessarily. “Look at your watch. It has a battery which wears out and needs to be replaced,” he said. Then Buffet walked over to his friend Chuck, removed his own watch with a windup stem, and presented it to Chuck Feeney so that he could save a little more money to give away. What a tender, gracious, generous moment between two icons of philanthropy!

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PARABLE OF CHARITY

Alfred Nobel (1)

Alfred Nobel (1833-1896)

On a fateful morning in 1888, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who had amassed an enormous fortune from the manufacture and sale of weapons of destruction, sat before his morning breakfast and newspaper and read his own obituary! A French reporter had made a mistake, publishing Alfred’s obit instead of his brother’s, who had died. Alfred was shocked at his description as “the dynamite king.” He had always seen himself as a man committed to breaking down barriers between people. To his horror, the world viewed him as a merchant of death. He left that breakfast table to change his last will and testament in the hope of changing his life’s legacy. The final disposition of his fortune established the Nobel Prize given to those who have done most for the cause of world peace.

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PARABLE OF CHARITY

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
Luke 21: 1-4

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

 

Care to read more?

A VISUAL REFLECTION—Also this week, Benjamin Pratt offers a visual reflection on Greed, based on a disturbing painting by the Italian artist Mario Donizetti, an idea prompted by the writings of the late Phyllis Tickle.

Cover of Benjamin Pratt Ian Fleming Seven Deadlier Sins bookAND, GET THE BOOK—Benjamin Pratt is the author of a book-length exploration of Ian Fleming’s life-long fascination with the challenge of “deadly sins.” In fact, Fleming believed that the traditional deadly sins should be updated with sins of the contemporary world—a theme he explored in his Bond novels. Learn more by getting a copy of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass.

The Workbench by Benjamin Pratt

tools-on-a-workbench

Tools on a workbench. Photo by Benjamín Núñez González, shared via Wikimedia Commons.

Advice from Henry David Thoreau about the importance of our work:
The fate of the country does not depend on … what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year—but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.
And: How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
And: Be not simply good—be good for something.

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EDITOR’s NOTE—At this remarkable milestone in world history—500 years from the start of the Reformation and 200 years from Thoreau’s birth—we invited popular author and columnist Benjamin Pratt to reflect on the challenges of his own life’s work as a pastor, counselor, writer, father, grandfather and talented woodworker. He calls his reflection simply: The Workbench.

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By BENJAMIN PRATT

luthers-desk-in-wartburg-germany

Martin Luther’s desk in Warburg, Germany. (Ben Pratt recently wrote about the 500th anniversary of Luther’s famous spark that set off the Reformation.)

There were two workbenches in my life.

Both brought me opportunity for purpose, creativity and satisfaction, even joy.

The first often left me weary and exhausted. The second, I never touched when I was tired. I liked my fingers too much.

The first workbench was the platform for my public life. It was always messy with papers, books, lists, notes, doodles, pens, clips and pencils. And the never-quiet phone for hearing needs, distributing concern, directing actions of service. I was a director of dissident music. The living and the dying converged upon this workbench for blessings, prayers, counsel and celebrations. Calls came from the glad, the newly weds, the newborn’s family, the lovelorn, lonely, brokenhearted, and the weak and dying.

In the midst of this clutter came letters of compliment and complaint, words of love and gratitude, and sometimes words of anger, despair or disdain. On this workbench were sketched sermons, bulletins and news briefs. Crafted here were notes of joy and hope, missives of comfort. From this workbench the Gospel was dispersed and the Bread of Life divided and shared with office, school, family.

At this workbench my soul, body and mind were occasionally sucked dry by too many people’s needs and not enough of me. I was lonely in the midst of the needy crowd. Fortunately, more often, my soul was filled with joy and nurtured with purpose and hope.

My second workbench was my private cloister.

It was messy also. It was always cluttered with chisels, rasps, shavings and sawdust. On dust-covered paper were sketches of projects, always something my mind could imagine more easily than my hands could produce. The challenge of creativity!

Precision and patience focused my eyes and hands as I crafted gifts for family and friends. The fragrances of walnut, cherry, oak and cedar wrapped me in cozy warmth like a freshly baked apple pie. These were times of solitude when body and mind were breathing a prayer of gratitude.

My life worked best when I kept these two workbenches in a delicate balance. Creative solitude (being alone with joy, not pain) was at the other end of the seesaw from my public life.

And now, as I have grown older, these workbenches remain in vivid memory, if not in tactile reach as my wife and I have downsized our home. It is the connection between the two that I treasure—and hope those I have loved and served through the years may remember fondly a Sunday message or a kind word that passed across one workbench—or a hand-crafted piece of furniture that passed across the other.

Two images perhaps. The real value, though, lies in seeing the connection. In my life, these workbenches truly were one. And, at their best, they were in balance as I labored over them. I was blessed and I was able to bless others.

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Care to read more?

Enjoy looking over Benjamin Pratt’s books in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.